Thursday, January 31, 2019

Prescribing of Valium, Xanax, other sedatives in U.S. doubled from 2003 to 2015, may correlate with overdoses

According to a newly published study, prescriptions for sedatives such as Valium and Xanax doubled from 2003 to 2015, and about half of those prescriptions were from primary-care physicians. While such drugs, called benzodiazepines, "are mostly prescribed for anxiety, insomnia and seizures, the study found that the biggest rise in prescriptions during this time period was for back pain and other types of chronic pain," Rhitu Chatterjee reports for NPR.

Dr. Joanna Starrels, an associate professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, noted that primary care physicians were more likely to prescribe benzodiazepines to outpatients, not psychiatrists. "I think the big message here is that primary care doctors are really left with burden of dealing, not only with chronic pain and opioid prescription, but also benzodiazepine prescriptions," she told Chatterjee. "Primary care doctors are the frontline providers. And in many settings, particularly in rural areas, we may be the only providers. So we end up needing to treat conditions where specialists may be better trained — like chronic pain, addiction and anxiety."

The study also found that long-term use of benzodiazepines increased by 50 percent from 2005 to 2015. That tracks with previous studies that have shown an almost eightfold increase in benzodiazepine overdose deaths between 1999 and 2016 -- totaling almost 12,000 in that period. Benzo-overdose deaths are particularly common in women, since they are more likely to see a doctor for anxiety or depression, and increased 830 percent between 1996 and 2017 for women between the ages of 30 and 64, Chatterjee reports.

Some researchers say the increase in benzodiazepine prescriptions and overdose deaths correlates with the opioid epidemic. Benzos share many of the same characteristics as opioids: they're addictive, they slow breathing, and alter the user's mental status. People who are vulnerable to opioid addiction would likely find themselves vulnerable to benzodiazepine addiction as well, Chatterjee reports.

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